Why Male Rule is Godly

A Review of Zachary Garris’s Honor Thy Fathers

The ongoing recovery of Reformed theology over the past few decades has been a rousing success. This resourcement project has thankfully begun moving us past the somewhat anachronistic pop Calvinism of the late 20th century to the rich theology the Reformers actually held.

This retrieval project, however, has tended to focus on doctrines that do not pose as much of a threat to the pieties of modern America. For example, the Reformers’ classic two kingdoms theology, which is taught in every Reformed confession, is typically either conflated with the idiosyncratic views of much later theologians or is castigated as theocratic and therefore anti-American.

Perhaps equally dismissed is the Reformers’ theology of the family. If modern Christians knew what the Reformers taught on this topic, they would treat the Reformers’ views at best as products of cultures awash in misogyny and sexism. One gets the distinct impression even from sophisticated Reformed theologians that when it comes to men, women, and the created order, the Reformers reverted to being men of their times rather than master theologians who carefully mapped out a timeless, coherent teaching from Scripture that we need to reckon with. All told, the modern Christian consensus seems to be that the Reformers’ teachings should not be a guide for Christian families in 2024.

In Honor Thy Fathers: Recovering the Anti-Feminist Theology of the Reformers, PCA pastor Zachary Garris aims to change this dynamic. In a concise, readable book from New Christendom Press, he takes seriously the Reformers’ distinctly “anti-feminist” teachings on “marriage, the family, and the duties of men and women—for the good of the church and of all mankind.” Marshalling a copious amount of quotes, Garris convincingly argues that the “consensus among the Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries” affirmed “male rule in the home, the church, and the commonwealth, while recognizing that there was variation in details and expression.” With its publication, Honor Thy Fathers becomes the most accessible introduction to the Reformers’ understanding of men and women that’s currently available. 

We should not follow the Reformers’ tenets on this matter primarily out of filial piety or love of tradition but because, Garris argues, they faithfully interpreted the Bible. The Reformers can especially help us in our time of deep confusion, which has produced a culture that assumes one’s sex is a coat to put on rather than something seared into our very DNA. Though technology and a host of other factors in the intervening centuries have altered how gendered virtue is manifested, the principles of nature on which these teachings are derived have not. 

Garris contrasts the Reformers’ views on the family to those propagated by first-wave feminists, which many Christians mistakenly see as fundamentally good, with corruptions only coming later. One piece of evidence he highlights to disabuse us of this notion is the controversial late 19th century commentary The Woman’s Bible, which was put together by a committee of women headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Garris says that these women rejected the dominant translations of Bible, which taught the “evils” of “making woman ‘a subject in marriage,’” and discarded “passages that [Stanton] and her committee considered unfavorable toward women.” Sounding suspiciously like a sermon delivered from a rainbow-painted pulpit of a United Church of Christ, this book also teaches the existence of both a “Heavenly Mother and Father” and directs its readers to pray to both.

This feminist influence, Garris argues, remains powerful in the present day. Eerdemans hired female “pastor” Amy Peeler, who teaches at Wheaton, to edit its New International Commentary on the New Testament. This is quite a departure from Ned Stonehouse, the series’ first editor, who was a renowned New Testament scholar and co-founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. 

Books such as Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (published by Zondervan) and Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission (published by P&R and endorsed by Carl Trueman) teach a form of narrow egalitarianism under the guise of being “confessional.” (In the midst of a years-long church search after leaving the OPC in 2022, last year Byrd and her family attended a liberal Methodist church with a woman pastor.) 

Even on a quick skim, it is clear that these books never should have been published. Byrd and Miller avoid discussing verses that pose problems to their theses, demonstrate a clear inability to faithfully summarize opposing arguments, include sloppy footnotes with incorrect information, and even use highly selective—and therefore misleading—quotes from the Reformers themselves. Written for conservative women, these books have subtly departed from the Reformed tradition—and more importantly, from the teachings of Scripture.

Garris charges that even complementarianism, the conservative response to egalitarianism, broke with the Reformed tradition. The claim that a woman may do anything a non-ordained man may do, a teaching promoted by theologian John Frame among others, severs the connection between church offices and the natural order. And popular pastor Tim Keller and his wife Kathy neutered the husband’s natural rule through endorsing the concept of “servant leadership,” which turns him into little more than a servant of his wife.

Reformed Anthropology and Marriage

In the face of all this, Garris turns to the Reformers themselves. As he pointedly notes, no major Reformed theologian prior to the mid-20th century held to the views on the family that are popular in the church today. Though Garris presents a very good collection of quotes, the first chapter of the book could have been improved by including more narrative to make it easier on the reader.

For the Reformers, since man was created first and woman was created from his side, man is the ruler, provider, protector, and counselor. Dutch Reformed theologian Gisbertus Voetius describes man “as the head,” arguing that “he has preeminence, superiority, or lordship over the woman.” 

This view of the natural order of creation had deep implications for the Reformers’ view of marriage. In his Of Domesticall Duties (it’s been republished in a three-volume set by Reformation Heritage Books), Puritan minister William Gouge states that the husband “by virtue of his superiority and authority has power to command his wife.” Typical of the Reformers, he cites a natural law argument for why this is so: “Nature has placed an eminence in the male over the female: so as they are linked together in one yoke, it is given by nature that he should govern, she obey.” 

As John Calvin made perfectly clear, the husband is to be a benevolent ruler, not a tyrant. And English Puritan minister Thomas Cartwright emphasizes that the wife is to be obedient to all her husband’s commands that are not “contrary to God.” Summing up the instruction of Wilhelmus à Brakel, a major theologian in the Dutch Further Reformation, Garris states that “the superior must tenderly love the subordinate (inferior), serve as a good example for the subordinate, show concern for the wellbeing of the subordinate (citing 1 Timothy 5:8), and overlook the subordinate’s weaknesses.” 

As for wives, Bishop John Davenant writes in his commentary on Titus that they are to “love their husbands” and “be keepers of the home.” Their duties include “taking care of the family and children, and administering other domestic matters, according to established laws, as says Aristotle.” Calvin says of the wife, “As Christ rules over his church for her salvation, so nothing yields more advantage or comfort to the wife than to be subject to her husband.” 

Beyond the Reformation era, Garris notes that we find the same teachings from the great 19th century Neo-Calvinist theologian Herman Bavinck. In his outstanding and underappreciated The Christian Family, Bavinck notes that “the way to heavenly salvation lies paved in the family: in bringing forth and nurturing children she demonstrates the genuineness and the power of her Christian faith (1 Tim. 2:15).” 

There is a clear difference in rank between husband and wife (though not a moral difference), which St. Paul makes clear in the hierarchy he presents in Ephesians 5:22-33. But according to Calvin, this does not negate the fact that husband and wife are “joined together by holy friendship.” In his Decades, famed Swiss pastor and theologian Heinrich Bullinger states that husband and wife are “mutually to bear most ardent and holy love the one to the other.” Voetius adds that “both have superiority and lordship over the remaining creatures” per Genesis 1:26-27. For example, husband and wife share a “joint government of the family.” Not diminishing the differences in station by nature, Voetius nevertheless reasons that they occupy “a place of common equity in many respects,” where they are “a sort of even fellows, and partners.” 

Superiors and Inferiors

The major Reformed confessions and Reformers such as à Brakel, Wolfgang Musculus, James Ussher, and the Westminster Assembly divines taught that the duties of husband and wife fall under the Fifth Commandment. For example, in A Treatise of Christian Religion (which was recently republished by Sacra Press), Thomas Cartwright cites the Fifth Commandment in making the case that man being the superior and woman the inferior in the order of creation has implications for how the family is ordered. 

Though the Westminster Larger Catechism (Questions 123-133 cover the Fifth Commandment) does not specifically mention husband and wife, the scriptural proof texts it cites clearly encompass the two parties in marriage. These passages include Colossians 3:18-19 (“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them.”), Ephesians 5:21-33, and 1 Peter 3:1-7—verses that the catechism’s creators took to mean that wives must submit in everything to their husbands and that husbands must love their wives as Christ loved the church.

Unsurprisingly, the Reformers were also of one mind on women serving as pastors, which is a modern novelty in the history of the church. As Calvin plainly stated in a sermon on 1 Corinthians, “The office of teaching is a superiority in the Church, and is, consequently, inconsistent with subjection.” 

Because their theology was grounded in natural distinctions, the Reformers logically also forbade women from reading Scripture and leading prayer during the worship service. And they could not teach theology to a mixed audience. Another implication, drawn by Francis Turretin, was that since women cannot teach in church per 1 Tim 2:12, neither can they administer the sacraments (the same argument is made in the Synopsis of a Purer Theology). Garris argues that these were the common “practice[s] of the Reformed churches from the Reformation to 19th-century Presbyterianism.” 

To make their case, many Reformers cited nearly parallel passages from 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, which teach that women are to keep quiet in the church. Garris compares the Reformers’ understanding of these verses to a modern interpretation that allows women to pray and prophesy during the church service. First proposed by W.C. Klein in 1962, Garris writes that this view has been popularized by conservatives such as D.A. Carson, Kevin DeYoung, Thomas Schreiner, and Wayne Grudem. 

In contrast, the members of the Westminster Assembly reasoned that since only men could be ministers, only they could carry out the various functions of the ministerial office. That is because instead of searching the Bible for specific commands as modern conservative evangelicals tend to do, the Reformers saw Scripture as laying out principles that were in accord with nature from which flowed good and necessary consequences. The male-only pastorate is then not an ad hoc creation of the church but reflects the natural order itself. Natural law and special revelation teach the same thing: all of human life is to be ordered around male rule.

Father Rule

Since the male-only pastorate is founded on distinctions within nature itself, the Reformers logically thought that women should not participate in civil rule. Calvin wrote plainly in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that “women have in all ages been excluded from the public management of affairs.” Understanding the implications of father rule within the family, William Gouge argues that “the family is a seminary of the church and nation”—meaning that the ordering of the family is a pattern for both the church and civil society. 

But there were differences among the Reformed on the particulars of this question. Unlike John Knox, Calvin thought that though female civil rule was unnatural, it was not always illegitimate. Heinrich Bullinger agreed, stating that “If a woman is in compliance with, or in obedience to the laws and customs of the realm…it is a hazardous thing for godly persons to set themselves in opposition to political regulations.” And though Voetius and Peter Martyr Vermigli thought that women should not ordinarily be involved in wars, if necessity demanded it, they may help soldiers gather stones or build earthworks. But even then, they still should not fight in the field. 

Prudence dictated that when the civil order was being threatened, what was abnormal could be necessary—but these situations were clear exceptions that proved the general rule.

Garris contends that too many pastors today would rather “quietly deviate from the teachings of our forefathers while maintaining the veneer of conservative, Reformed theology and practice.” It is clear that this abdication has helped lead us into the mess we are in currently. For as Alastair Roberts has gravely noted

I believe that male dominance in power and authority in society isn’t just something biblically authorized or mandated—it isn’t just that women lack permission—but is an inescapable fact that God has established through his creation. Even when egalitarians seek to avoid it, it continues to reassert itself in their midst. I believe that the very tenor of the Christian faith is jeopardized by women priests.

Of course, the teachings of our Reformed forefathers on the family will be difficult for many congregations today, so pastors will need to exhibit prudence and care to bring them back into practice. But this is no excuse for pastors to continue to avoid preaching these truths—or even twisting them beyond recognition—in the face of a culture that, due to the rampant acceptance of feminism among other sins, is decaying before our very eyes. 

Garris concludes by issuing a challenge to Christian men in the form of two choices: “continue to follow the path of feminism, undermining God-ordained authority structures and producing a disordered society. Or Christians can return to the faith of our Reformed forefathers, including their view of male rule in the home, the church, and the commonwealth.” Which way, Christian man?


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Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a Contributing Editor of American Reformer and an Assistant Editor of The American Mind, the online journal of the Claremont Institute. His writing has appeared at RealClearPolitics, The Federalist, Public Discourse, and American Greatness, among other outlets. He lives with his wife and son in Cincinnati.

8 thoughts on “Why Male Rule is Godly

  1. Fantastic reasoning and application, integration of the Word with its historical interpretation.

    I have two questions though:

    1) how do you reconcile the commandment that women are to teach [other women], with what you said above? Are you being overly general?
    2) it wasn’t God’s ideal for men to have two wives. And yet almost everyone in the OT did, and God even commanded it and blessed it in some circumstances. Is it possible that, given the horrific abuse by men of our institutions, first racism and then sexual abuse, women need to be in leadership, not because it is God’s ideal, but because it is necessary in the same way that it was necessary for men to take multiple wives?

  2. Who gets to decide what ‘love’ men owe their wives? What happens WHEN he decides that the most loving thing he can do is beat her to a bloody pulp?

    1. It’s regulated by scripture and nature. If he beats her to a pulp, he becomes subject to the sanctions of the church and the state. Each of the spheres of legitimate authority have a degree of overlap that enforces their accountability.

      1. In your world she will have nowhere safe to flee and no way of supporting herself if she does. What will the secular authorities do to support her if she is able to leave?

  3. This is what happens when bookish scholars ruminate in safe places away from real life. Women shouldn’t go to war? In an ideal world, nobody would go to war. But what if war comes to her (and her children and her community) as it often does?

    Likewise, how is feminism such a great danger compared to terrorism, epidemics, organized crime, catastrophic weather or seismic events? But no, feminism is the looming cloud!

    But wait – there’s already a society that is experimenting with the suppression of women: the Taliban. How’s that going? You can draw a straight line between the proposals of this article and their implementation in real life in Afghanistan.

    1. Barb,
      Your comment is great, thank you. And your first sentence hits achilles heel of Reformed Theologians and Christians–btw, I also come from the Reformed tradition. What I have observed is that our way of feeling in control is to use deduction alone to define life and reality. We need to back off and to start listening to others.

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